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Black Trans Women Are Being Murdered. Why Aren't There More Arrests?

80% of trans women killed in the past five years were black, and only 42 percent of the cases resulted in an arrest.

by Tess Owen
Jun 7 2019, 4:57pm

The recent murders of two black transgender women in Dallas has set the LGBTQ community on edge. But their deaths are also spotlighting the epidemic of violence against black trans women in the U.S. — and those unsolved murders are piling up.

Chynal Lindsey’s body was pulled out of White Rock Lake near Dallas on Saturday afternoon. On May 18, police discovered the body of Muhlaysia Booker a few miles from the same lake. Two black trans women were also killed in Dallas in 2018 and 2015.

Dallas police, which ruled all four homicides, have not arrested a single person, and on Monday said they had called in the FBI to help with all four cases. Data shows that’s hardly unusual.

Murders of transgender women appear to have a lower arrest rate when compared to murders in the general population. Since 2014, at least 110 trans women were killed, according to Human Rights Campaign reporting. Only 42 percent of the investigations resulted in an arrest, compared to about 61 percent of murder cases across the general public, according to the FBI.

Within these grim statistics, the prevalence of attacks against black trans women is striking. Eighty-eight of the murder victims were black, a VICE News analysis of the known cases shows. Another 11 were identified as Latinx.

This is dramatically out of line with the demographic breakdown of the transgender population as a whole. Around 55 percent of transgender adults identify as white, 16 percent identify as African-American, and 21 percent identify as Latinx, according to a study by the UCLA’s Williams Institute.

Arrest rates in murder cases of black cisgender women are also lower than in the general population — about 55 percent of investigations result in an arrest — but still significantly higher than transgender cases.

Read more: This young trans woman beaten in a viral video was murdered over the weekend.

Transgender murders account for a sliver of killings in the general population, but advocates say the low arrest rate is not anecdotal — and point to several factors driving it.

Some said one issue is a deep-seated distrust of law enforcement among many trans people — especially in communities of color. Past experiences or perceptions of bias, such as profiling, harassment, or police brutality, leads many to avoid police altogether.

“Sometimes they won’t speak up and say ‘we know who did this’,” said Leslie McMurray, transgender education and advocacy coordinator for the Resource Center, which caters to the LGBTQ community in Dallas.

Additionally, a greater percentage of the transgender community is involved in sex work than other demographics, putting them at heightened risk of violence and in a legal bind if they need police assistance. Many sex workers are loath to report violence to police for fear of repercussions, like winding up in jail. And after an attack, sex workers may also be afraid to come forward with information.

“We learned how to survive based on what we were able to come up with. We’re vulnerable because we have no support — no policy support, no societal support,” said Carmarion Anderson, executive director of Black Transwomen Inc., a national organization based in Dallas.

Then, McMurray added, there’s often a sense that “law enforcement just don’t care.”

“The lives of black people are viewed as disposable in our society, and the lives of trans people are viewed as disposable,” said Avery Belyeu, regional director of Lambda Legal’s Dallas office. “So when you have that intersection of black identity in America and transgender identity, it’s not surprising that in our system, these things are not prioritized oftentimes.”

Read more: Trans woman diagnosed with HIV died days after ICE released her.

Transgender murder cases are also sometimes hampered by police investigators who misgender the victim, or refer to their prior names. ProPublica found that in 74 of 85 transgender murder cases between 2015 and August 2018, police initially “deadnamed” victims — meaning they identified them by the names or genders that they no longer used.

That’s what happened in 2018 in Jacksonville, Florida, when three black transgender women were murdered between February and June. In all three instances, police used male pronouns and their former male names to refer to the victims, ProPublica reported. No arrests were ever made.

The Dallas police department has gotten its share of criticism for mishandling deaths of trans women. Last year, a black trans woman was found dead in White Rock Creek. Her death was ruled a suicide, and Dallas police initially described her as a “black male.” They do have a liaison to work with the LGBTQ community — a position that was created in the '90s — and at a recent town hall following Booker’s death, the department pledged to improve sensitivity training for new recruits and better protect trans residents.

The murders have stoked fears that there could be a serial killer at large targeting black trans women. The murders of Lindsey and Booker drew national attention because Booker was brutally beaten in a video that went viral one month before she was murdered. (Police believe the incident was unrelated.)

But others barely registered news coverage. Brittany White, 29, was also found dead, killed in a car in southeast Dallas in October. Another black transgender woman was stabbed multiple times in April, police said. The victim survived and has provided a description of her assailant, and police are investigating possible similarities between her stabbing and the murders of Lindsey and Booker.

Shade Schuler, 26, was discovered decomposing in a crude grave in July 2015. And police said that they are investigating the remains of a unidentified transgender woman found in a field in July 2017.

“We are concerned,” Dallas Police Chief Renée Hall told reporters this week. But when asked whether she believed Lindsey and Booker’s deaths were the work of a serial killer, Hall hedged.

“Right now we don’t have the evidence to substantiate that,” Hall said. “But what we are asking each and every one of our community members is to stay vigilant.”

When Muhlaysia Booker came out as transgender, she asked her family to make sure her gender identity was respected should anything ever happen to her.

To Anderson, this is telling. “They understand that because of who they are, they might die before their parents,” said Anderson. “That’s the reality of being black and trans in America. The fear is part of the everyday existence for these folks.”

Trone Dowd contributed to this report.

Cover: Chynal Lindsey / Facebook.